House speaker candidate Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., pauses during a news conference at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

Kevin McCarthy will do anything to be speaker of the House, make any promise, and cut any deal. What’s worse is what he won’t do: Draw any moral line in the marble he walks on. There’s no level beneath which he will not sink.

He was paralyzed by Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene’s rant last month. The fireplug spoke to wild cheers at a New York Young Republican Club dinner. The Man Who Would Be Speaker gave not a peep when she declared that had she and Steve Bannon been in charge on January 6, the mob would have been heavily armed and the government handily overthrown. The crowd ate it up, along with the T-bones she threw following a Fox News report that CVS is now selling sex toys, probably to minors.

We can’t know what could have been had she and Bannon stormed the gates on January 6, but I could see if my neighborhood CVS was selling adult, um, equipment. I can’t speak to what’s going on at the one where Greene shops or the “select” stores in New York where a Fox reporter told Tucker Carlson that butt plugs were behind those cases you need an employee to open, but my CVS five miles from the White House had nothing tawdry.

Two years ago, something you would find in Washington was a functioning conscience in McCarthy. Faced with a new member who claimed school shootings had been staged, sympathized with QAnon, and identified with groups in favor of assassinating Nancy Pelosi, McCarthy threatened to remove Greene’s appointment to the Education and Labor Committee and stick her with a lesser post. The whole House, with its Democratic majority, would go on to strip Greene of all committee assignments, but at least McCarthy showed he had a pulse. 

Today, there’s no sign that McCarthy was once a vertebrate, his spine lost in his grovel for the gavel. The Californian’s mentor, the curmudgeonly retired Representative Bill Thomas, calls him a “liar.” The moment requires McCarthy to be a very good one. He can’t afford five defectors. 

Meanwhile, Greene has learned a little. Dimly aware that others find January 6 decidedly unfunny, she insists that she only made “a sarcastic joke” at that New York dinner. The line between the sarcastic and the sacrosanct is the permeable redoubt of those who think they can have it two ways. McCarthy needs nothing to stay quiet about it all. He’s promised Greene a place in leadership and she’s supporting his bid. 

In addition to letting MTG say what she feels, McCarthy isn’t even trying to keep the Oath Keeper sympathizer Representative Clay Higgins of Louisiana in line. In 2020, when Higgins threatened to “drop any 10 of you [blacks protesting police brutality] where you stand” in a Facebook post, Democrats warned McCarthy that the violent rhetoric was getting out of hand. McCarthy reportedly told Higgins, a former police officer and sheriff’s deputy, to cut it out or risk losing committee assignments. This fall, Higgins tweeted a picture of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s hands pressing her forehead and a caption: “That moment you realize the nudist hippie male prostitute LSD guy is the reason your husband didn’t make it to your fundraiser.” The tweet was removed, and there were no reports that the wannabe speaker chastised Higgins, who may well chair the Homeland Security Committee now led by Representative Bennie Thompson. 

A new sign of how low McCarthy would sink came when Representative-elect George Santos was exposed as an aerobic fabulist. According to an investigation and the New Yorker’s own admissions, he fabricated almost the entirety of his campaign biography, except for the “a,” the “and,” and the “the.” There’s no record Santos went to NYU, worked at Goldman Sachs, helmed an animal rescue effort, or had the wherewithal to loan his campaign $700,000. He desecrated his mother’s grave, telling various stories about how and when she died. On top of all that, Santos  said he had family who had escaped the Holocaust. He fabricated being Jewish, saying he meant “Jew-ish.” Santos claims to be gay, but now that a sleeping press and braindead Democrats have discovered he was once married to a woman, even that claim seems suspect.

Santos may be dishonest, but he is not dumb. What was the first thing the bespectacled Long Islander did to keep his seat upon learning the Times would be running the story? Appeal to McCarthy, not on the merits—there are none—but on his ambition. Santos tweeted the night before the bombshell that he would back McCarthy for speaker. That did it. Santos will take his seat, protected by the silence of McCarthy. 

Adding to McCarthy’s woe is a split over his candidacy between the two wildest members of his caucus: Greene and Representative Lauren Boebert. Boebert moved into a slight lead in the crazy races when she dispatched a holiday card last year featuring a fully armed family in front of the Christmas tree. Boebert’s main reason for withholding support for McCarthy is his objection to a motion that would allow any one member to force a vote to oust him. Even someone as dim as McCarthy knows he’d be signing his own demise if he agreed to let one caucus lunatic initiate his decapitation. 

Boebert’s so-far implacable stance against McCarthy has led her to depict Greene as an extremist. She explained more in an interview with the Daily Caller. “I’ve been asked to explain MTG’s belief in Jewish space lasers, why she showed up to a white supremacist’s conference, and to explain why she is blindly following Kevin McCarthy.” Greene says Boebert “childishly threw me under the bus for a cheap sound bite.”

Wackos have always been in each party, but the GOP has record numbers and, most worrisome, has a leader in McCarthy who panders to them. How far we’ve traveled from the days when members didn’t compete based on who could get to the fringe the fastest or trashed each other over who they were going to vote for speaker. At the unveiling of outgoing speaker Nancy Pelosi’s official portrait, former speaker John Boehner hugged Pelosi like he meant it. In his day, there was always time for a smoke, a glass of Merlot, a round of golf, and the shedding of a tear or two. He wanted to beat the other side on the merits, not behind the bleachers. The longest-serving Republican speaker, convicted felon Denny Hastert, the highest-ranking U.S. official to ever serve time in prison, may seem like a model of decorum compared to this crowd.

By setting no standard, McCarthy now presides over a daycare center, and not very well. Toddlers quarrel over juice boxes and tattle on each other. On Steve Bannon’s show, Representative Matt Gaetz, a pro-Boebert buffoon, whined, “Whatever Kevin has promised Marjorie Taylor Greene, I guarantee you this: At the first opportunity, he will zap her faster than you can say Jewish space laser.” 

So many playmates, so little time. Fortunately, McCarthy was banished to the kids’ table by Mitch McConnell, Chuck Schumer, Nancy Pelosi, and Joe Biden, who hammered out an omnibus spending bill. McCarthy wanted short-term funding so that his caucus could threaten a government shutdown, even though it has been both bad politics and policy since the 1990s. Senator Kevin Cramer spoke for Mitch McConnell. “I just think for Kevin’s sake, even though he’s not asking for it, I think some Republicans just feel like we should relieve him of that burden,” he said.

That sounds like good parenting advice. Negotiating with the adults is a burden if you’re scared of your own members. 

The shame of McCarthy is that he could have been somebody, not Pelosi or Tip O’Neill, or Speakers Joe Cannon or Sam Rayburn, whose names are chiseled on two congressional buildings, but a passable speaker. Time was when McCarthy disciplined his members for the greater good, and he would stop with the backslapping long enough to listen. More recently, he was a good son taking his mother to the state dinner for the president of France. In 2021, he stiffened his spine long enough to declare that January 6 was “the worst day I’ve ever seen in Congress” but could hold that only so long before he groveled before Trump at Mar-a-Lago in hopes he could be “My Kevin” again. 

One description of the pair of them came from a Republican who pictured the former president as a passenger on the Titanic as it hit the iceberg, racing around with the band still playing, gathering up shawls and beaded purses in the dining room to get a seat on a lifeboat with the women and children. McCarthy was close behind him in a skirt. 

As “My Kevin” struggles to be speaker, his campaign strategy is to endure the condescension dripping from the upper chamber, to plea bargain with the lying Santos, and let Greene remind the world that Republicans are the insurrection party, all with a weakened Trump wrapped around his neck. He thinks he can’t win without Trump, nor without  Greene or Santos or the other rogue members he’s promised the moon and stars for their votes. Winning like that is no victory at all.

Margaret Carlson

Follow Margaret on Twitter @carlsonmargaret. Margaret Carlson is a columnist at The Daily Beast.